Thursday, September 15, 2016

On the Meaning and Value of Leadership: Formulating a Social Reality as a Vision

I submit that leadership is the formation of a vision and persuading other people to adopt it. From this standpoint, leadership is distinct from management—the latter taking the vision as a given and going from there to formulate strategy and implement it as policies. In short, a vision is open to leaders to change but closed to managers, who must take a vision as a given.

Regarding a leader’s vision, I contend that it contains meaning and values held together in a social reality; hence the breadth of a vision. Two scholars insist that a leader works to shape and interpret situations out of what has previously remained implicit or unsaid, guiding by common interpretation of reality via vision through foresight, hindsight, a world view, depth perception, peripheral vision, and revision.[1] The social reality in a vision is thus deep as well as broad, reaching even the subconscious level of the human mind. To the extent people have bought into the leader's social reality, the leader has led.[2]

Detecting or fashioning "meaning" is crucial to formulating a social reality for a vision. A couple scholars suggest that leaders "structure experience in meaningful ways."[3] In "defining the reality of others", leaders influence "systems of meaning," which circumscribe a leader’s vision as well as organizational activity.  In short, an essential factor in leadership is the capacity to influence and organize meaning."[4]

Humans are "congenitally compelled to impose a meaningful order upon reality."[5] Some people are able to do this better than others. Leadership is therefore basic to the human condition.[6] In fact, accurately defining reality can be considered a leader’s duty, with ethical implications not only from that duty, but also in the meaningful content of a leader's construed social reality, which can be laced with ethical principles and values.[7] Regarding the content, leaders interpret social reality in such a way that particular values and/or beliefs are highlighted.[8] In other words, a leader's "meaning making" includes giving meaning to shared values that are important and make a difference.[9] 

Therefore, both the doing and product of leadership can be viewed normatively. Accordingly, ethical leadership can pertain to the doing of leadership as well as to the content of visionary leadership. For example, a manager being called to serve in a leadership position can view accepting the promotion as an ethical imperative to impart meaning and values for people in the organization, who are otherwise having difficulty coming up with a social reality that is gripping and thus meaningful and of value. Such meaningfulness and values can themselves involve ethical principles set as duties, which followers as well as the leader should undertake.

For more, please see the following two booklets: Ethical Leadership and Christianized Ethical Leadership.


[1]. Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).
[2]. Skip Worden, “The Role of Integrity as a Mediator in Strategic Leadership; A Recipe for Reputational Capital,” Journal of Business Ethics 46 No. 1 (August 2003): 31.  
[3]. Linda Smircich and Gareth Morgan, “Leadership: The Management of Meaning,” Journal of applied Behavioral Science 18 (1982): 258.
[4]. Bennis and Nanus, Leaders, 39.
[5]. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967): 22.
[6]. Worden, “The Role of Integrity,” 32.
[7]. Worden, “The Role of Integrity,” 32; Max DePree, Leadership is an Art (New York: Doubleday, 1989): 53.  
[8]. Kate Rowsell and Tony Berry, “Leadership, Vision, Values and Systematic Wisdom,” Leadership & Organization Development Journal 14 No. 7 (1993).
[9]. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993): 197, 206.